Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations
Loved that piece of music you just heard? Support the programming you enjoy by becoming a WWFM member with your financial contribution today. Thank you!

Making Room For A 'Broad Margin' To Life, In Verse

Maxine Hong Kingston revisits her life, ancestors, characters and passionate concern for peace and women's equality in this unconventional, somewhat rambling, intermittently arresting memoir in verse, which she began writing in 2005 — on the cusp of her 65th birthday. I Love a Broad Margin to My Life takes its evocative title from a quote from Thoreau that hangs over her desk, while its free verse form owes much to Walt Whitman, after whom Hong Kingston named Wittman Ah Sing, the hero of her first novel, Tripmaster Monkey (1989).

Hong Kingston contemplates aging, writing and Chinese-American culture: "standing on top of a hill;/I can see everywhichway—/the long way that I came, and the few places I have yet to go. Treat/my whole life as if it were a day." She examines herself critically — "Am I pretty at 65?/What does old look like?" — and notes the impulse to "save each scrap of moment" along with the desire for "poetry as it came to my young self/humming and rushing, no patience for chapter book."

No patience, either, for "the stupid, the greedy, the cruel, the unfair [who] have taken/over the world." The author of The Woman Warrior (1976) and China Men (1980) is still fiercely outspoken. One of the more engaging sections of Broad Margin recounts being arrested for demonstrating in a forbidden zone on the White House sidewalk in March 2003 in an anti-war protest coordinated by the Code Pink organization to coincide with International Women's Day. Her cellmate was Alice Walker.

In contrast, reflections on several of her dozen visits to China meander like a traveler without an itinerary. She regrets never bringing her father along, afraid to try because he was an illegal alien. Wondering what it would be like "to leave you who love me," she has her old character Wittman leave his wife on his "5-times-12 birthday" and contemplate becoming a rice farmer in China, where "so-so/security will send a check every/month to wherever I'll be living." His travels blur with hers, no doubt in part because, "For the writer,/doing something in fiction is the same as doing/it in life."

Hong Kingston notes that in the four years she spent writing Broad Margin, "Poetry, which makes immortality and eternity,/did not stop time." She names more than 50 of her dead, commenting, "Each one who dies, I want to go with you ... Why continue to live?" Among the reasons she lists is her desire to translate her father's poems.

Ever matrilineal, Hong Kingston marks generations in grandmothers ("3 grandmothers ago"), and notes that, assuming she lives to 100 like her mother, at her current rate of a book a decade, she has time to write three more books. But in her startling final lines, she confesses that she regrets "always writing, writing" and asserts that her lifelong desire to write "is going away./I've said what I have to say ... When I/complete this sentence, I shall begin/taking my sweet time to love the moment-/to-moment beauty of everything. Every one. Enow." Last words? Time, as they say, will tell.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit

Heller McAlpin is a New York-based critic who reviews books regularly for, The Los Angeles Times, The Washington Post, The Christian Science Monitor, The San Francisco Chronicle and other publications.